Don’t let hearing loss turn to social loss

Music lover and ballroom dancer Louise Bartlett considers herself outgoing and open-minded, so when hearing difficulties started to hold her back in social settings, she became frustrated and angry.

At parties and luncheons, she noticed she was the only person in the room struggling to maintain a conversation. If there were a lot of people talking around her, she often couldn’t understand what someone was saying, even if they were standing face-to-face.

Still, she continued to dismiss the problem and its pernicious effects. At the time, she was only in her 40s and mistakenly believed it had nothing to do with her “exceptional” hearing abilities.

By the time she was 50, her denial had turned into discomfort. She struggled to maintain dialogue with someone standing close to her but time after time, she shrugged off the issue.

It got to the point where Louise was constantly asking people to repeat themselves — to no avail — resulting in her pretending to follow the conversation.

Instead of seeking treatment, Louise developed “strategies” to cope with the social faux pas, yet this left her feeling more isolated and frustrated. “I would cup my ear to capture more noise,” she said.

“If friends wanted to get together, I made a point of seeing them solo.”

It wasn’t long before the problem trickled down into her family life as well. “My husband and my daughter used to complain that I would turn on the TV too loud. I thought they were being precious. The sound on the new TV just wasn’t as good as the old TV,” she thought to herself rather unconvincingly.

“These were strategies I adopted to cope with noisy social situations. But it wasn’t fun and at best I was only picking up every third word … it was all so gradual that I just didn’t connect the dots. All the signs were there, I just didn’t look at them.”

So for years, Louise’s hearing loss was left untreated. But losing the joy of music was the final straw.

From a young age, music played a central role in Louise’s life — from playing the piano and singing in the school choir, to becoming the first female rock DJ at her university’s radio station, to her new passion, ballroom and Latin dance.

“Creating and hearing the richness of notes in their infinite possibilities was the ultimate in creative expression. Listening to music ranging from classical to rock, it brought a light to my soul,” she said.

When it came to dance, Louise was learning new steps but hearing loss was holding her back. “Dance involves the ability to count and dance to the beat of the music. I really wanted to learn to dance in the full sense of the word — to use my body to express all the stories to the music,” she said.

Like many musicians and music lovers, Louise suspected that her hearing loss was caused by overexposure to loud noises over the years.

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Research has shown that loud music can significantly increase the risk of hearing damage

In 2014, German researchers conducted the largest study into noise-induced hearing loss in musicians, which involved 2,227 professional musicians. They found that the musicians were four times more likely to report a new noise-induced hearing loss compared to the general population, and 57 per cent more likely to experience tinnitus — a condition that causes frequent ringing or buzzing in the ears. The researchers suggested increasing awareness of loud music while rehearsing and protecting the ears with in-ear devices as possible solutions to the long-term risks of loud music in performers.

But what about Louise and others like her who had already been left with irreversible damage? She could continue to “cope” with the problem and risk missing out on the activities she loved, or overcome her fears and stubbornness, and seek treatment. Eventually, Louise chose the latter.

After visiting a Blamey Saunders clinic to trial a range of hearing aids, Louise explored her options and to her surprise, found a hearing aid that was designed with music lovers in mind. Thanks to the tailored settings, Louise’s hearing aids captured the sound quality of each musical note and for the first time in a long time, she could hear a live symphony or listen to music on the radio with full richness and texture.

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After getting treatment for her hearing, Louise is able to properly compete in her dance competitions

“I cannot dance without them on. I can hear music how it’s supposed to be,” said Louise.

“At the dance competitions, we don’t know what song is about to come on so I have to be able to hear and dance to the music rather than dancing to cues in the music,” added Louise, who practices dance two to three hours every day, and competes roughly once every six weeks.

For Louise, the most valuable feature of the hearing aid is the unique IHearYou® technology, which allows her to adjust the sound, clarity and volume when she is performing, using the app on her smartphone.

“During competitions, I can’t be running around with a laptop. That’s a cumbersome item and I don’t have time when I’m on the dance floor. Sometimes I’ve just got my lipstick, phone and a bottle of water. It’s very easy and unobtrusive to use my smart phone to make the adjustments during dance breaks. I can do it on the spot wherever I am. It looks like I’m just using my smart phone,” Louise said.

“I might bring out the bass a little if I need to hear the beat a bit more, and compare it back to the original. I can also adjust the volume, because sometimes the music can blare out of those speakers.”

Louise says the app is simple and anyone who has a smartphone can use it.

“The ease of doing this is what makes it so special. There’s not a huge learning curve and you don’t have to spend a lot of time working out how to do it. It’s self-explanatory. I can just adjust the settings and get on with it.”

FAST FACTS

  • One in six Australians experience hearing loss
  • Approximately 37 per cent of all hearing loss cases in Australia are caused by exposure to excessive noise, according to an Access Economics report
  • Many people delay treating hearing loss for an average of seven years
  • Three in four people who need hearing aids do not use them

If left untreated hearing loss can lead to:

  • Fatigue and embarrassment
  • Irritability and anger
  • Isolation and loneliness
  • Personal safety problems
  • Impaired memory and learning ability
  • Reduced psychological health

Blamey Saunders bionic ear technology and smart hearing aids
Blamey Saunders hears was founded by Dr Elaine Saunders and Professor Peter Blamey to remove obstacles to good hearing health. Their innovations have already helped improve the lives of thousands of Australians.

Professor Blamey’s inventions are used in their hearing aids as well as in the bionic ear, with the proven technology designed to make sound audible and comfortable for the listener. The adaptive amplifier technology in their hearing aids has been tested in clinical trials and was preferred by the majority of users, when compared to the compression technology used in most conventional hearing aids. It adapts to keep sound comfortable without distortion.

Want quick and useful feedback about your hearing? Take a free online hearing test to get an accurate report of your hearing condition. Simply enter your details and an expert will contact you to give you the best advice.

Government support
You may be eligible to access a range of hearing services under the government’s Hearing Services Program. This may include hearing assessments, advice and support, hearing rehabilitation programs, and more. To find out if you’re eligible visit hearingservices.gov.au.

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